Waste Disposal in First-Nations Communities: The Issues and Steps toward the Future

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The generation of waste and the collection, processing, transport, and disposal of waste constitute an important issue for both human and environmental health reasons. There is a vast body of research on the potential environmental and human health effects of waste itself and the different waste management practices (Rushton, 2003). The potential for human and environmental health effects resulting from poor waste management practices has been a longstanding concern for many First Nations communities across Canada. (First Nations is the term commonly used in Canada to describe the various societies of indigenous peoples who are accorded status as "Indians" by the Indian Act of 1985 and who are not of Inuit or Metis descent. The constitutional term applied to all three groups collectively [Indian, Inuit, and Metis] is "Aboriginal.") In the 1970s, for instance, environmental and human health hazards resulted from the mismanagement of industrial waste in the Ojibway First Nations communities of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog (LaDuke, 1992).

Waste management practices that currently encompass disposal, treatment, reduction, recycling, segregation, and modification have developed over the past 150 years, and have been implemented in many Canadian towns and cities (Hamer, 2003). In addition, waste management is tightly regulated, environmental policies have been developed, and waste-monitoring programs for all potential sources of pollution from different waste management options are being continuously carried out in most countries, including Europe, the United States, and Canada (Crowe, Ptacek, Rudolph, & McGregor, 2001; Hamer). Thus, most Western nations have environmental agencies, policies, statutes, regulations, and mechanisms for evaluating the possible impacts of waste management, for monitoring the continuing effects of existing waste management practices, and for adjudicating charges of environmental damage (Meske, 1993; Portney & Stavins, 2000). Although several agencies and policies have been developed to protect people from environmental hazards in Canada, no equivalent mechanisms exist at present within the terms of self-government agreements to enable First Nations people to control environmental impacts on their lands. Historically, First Nations have been left at the margins in policy development, and the avenues for their participation in federal, provincial, and territorial review processes still are not clear or satisfactory (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada [INAC], 2004). Thus, the current situation offers First Nations people no reliable means of protecting themselves from existing or potential human and environmental health hazards (Goldtooth, 1995; INAC, 2004). First Nations people have a strong connection to the land, and degradation of the environment may lead to subsequent declines in the cultural health of a community (Grinde & Johansen, 1995).

According to the 1996 Census of Canada, approximately 225,000 First Nations people live on reserves and in other communities (Statistics Canada, 1997), or approximately 0.7 percent of Canada's population. There are 2,267 First Nations reserves in Canada with a total land base of approximately 2,671,564.5 hectares (approximately 0.2 percent of the total Canadian land base) (Statistics Canada, National Contact Centre, 2001). Given that the reserve population is expected to double by the year 2015 and that there is a high population density in most First Nations communities, environmental pressures in these communities are expected to increase. Although the land base is relatively small in comparison to the overall land base of Canada, environmental contamination from the mismanagement of waste in First Nations communities is a growing concern (Akwesasne, 1996; LaDuke, 1992; Ransom & Lickers, 1988; Tarbell, Arquette, & Akwesasne, 2000). This article examines waste management in First Nations communities, the issues surrounding waste management practices, and the environmental degradation that First Nations communities face throughout Canada. …